What Black Folks Need Now

What black folks need now, is not to be told that somehow President Obama is going to save them. President Obama is a brilliant man, but number one, he sort of has his hands full, and number two, it's not President Obama's job to save black folks. That was my mother's job. Just like everyone else in America, we are going to have to figure out a way to save ourselves, and we can do this.

At a meeting in Washington, DC a few weeks back some of the best minds in black America gathered, at which I was invited to attend. Inspiring as it was, what dismayed me was all the talk about how President Obama "needed to become a black president," and how he needed to more clearly "show his commitment to the black community." Huh? The man is not the local councilman of Ward 6 (and asking our local elected leader in Ward 6 might be a problem there too).

Imagine for a moment if there was a Latino president, and this Latino president began openly pitching exclusively for, or even preferably for, the Latino race. What would happen? I will tell you what. My black friends, and in fact some of the same black friends that sat around this table on this day -- would be picketing the White House, claiming racism and other perverse preferential treatment with respect to my Latino brothers and sisters.

Respectfully, what we need President Obama to be is not a black president, but simply a very good one (president, that is). President Obama must become a great president, and not just a black president. If he ever simply becomes a black president, he will soon find himself also to be a failed president.

What black America needs politically, is the same thing that the rest of America needs, just more of it; and at the moment that equates to jobs and a stable if not growing economy. As I have often said, "when mainstream America has a headache, Black folks have pneumonia, but we are all sick." If we solve jobs and the economy for black America, then many other items of deep concern to our community, from crime to incarceration rates, to yes healthcare, to a range of social issues, will either get resolved or be addressed in ways they otherwise would not. If we don't solve jobs and the economy, well then basically what we are all doing is simply "re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." We can feel good for about 15 minutes, but we are going to be in a real state of hurt for more like 15 years, or more.

Black America's problems -- maybe for the first time since the civil rights movement -- are now locked up in and intertwined with the issues of mainstream America, and with respect to solving these problems, this is a good thing. When we are "all in this together," everyone begins to see that solving problems for the poor and the under-served are also in their own middle-class enlightened self-interest.

We must get our priorities straight

Did we need healthcare reform? Of course we did. That said, if you ask the average person on the street today, be they black, white, red or brown, "would you prefer to have healthcare and maybe a job, or would you prefer to have a job, and maybe healthcare," the question almost answers itself. What America, and specifically black America, needs now more than anything else are jobs and a stable economic system, period, full-stop. And this said, these "jobs" are not going to be coming from traditional choices.

Governments are increasingly, well broke, and they should not be the principle job creator to begin with. The first $700 billion stimulus package was substantially about filling holes in county and state budgets, as U.S. counties and states cannot print money but must balance budgets annually. Who can print money? The federal government can, and did. This was an adequate response to the immediacy of the crisis of the times, but this is also not a long-term answer. What states need is the same thing that black folks need; more (new) jobs, and financial literacy. Yes, financial literacy.

A substantial driver of "income" to counties and states is related to property tax revenue, and the crisis that sparked this larger global economic crisis (now a crisis of confidence) was a predatory subprime mortgage crisis. And while there is more than enough blame to go around to predatory subprime lenders trading in greed, fraud and the like, a partner in the crisis included otherwise well-educated borrowers, who when obtaining a loan, asked "what's the payment and not what's the interest rate," and you never ask what the payment is when there is an interest rate attached. A predatory subprime lender got my father 20 years ago, but they never got me, because I made sure I "repaired the faults visited upon my parent's." Put another way, I made sure I was financially literate. I made sure that I spoke the language of money, in an economic age.

What we need now is a massive, nationwide focus on entrepreneurship, small business creation, and even a focus on the active development of what I call "self-employment projects." And even where this focus does not in fact create "an entrepreneur" per se, in the black community it might succeed in creating something even more valuable; an entrepreneurial, can-do, glass-is-half-full, let's figure out what we are for mindset. And this alone, this focus on empowerment rather than, dare I say, an entitlement mentality, would be transformational in and of itself.


Sympathy has its place, and pure charity is absolutely necessary and essential, maybe more so today than any time in recent history. That said, only an intelligently applied approach of empathy, rather than a liberally spread dose of sympathy, is sustainable with respect to national policy and a competitive market economy. Let me give an example.

If I gave a homeless man $1 million dollars, the chances are better than 99% that he will be broke and homeless once again in say 6 months. The problem was not that he was broke, but rather that he was poor. As my mother and father inspired me to believe, "there is a difference between being broke and being poor. Being broke is a temporary economic condition, but being poor is a disabling state of mind and a depressed condition of the spirit, and we must vow to never, ever be poor again." The word capital comes from the Latin root word "capitis," or simply put, knowledge in the head. If you are poor in your thoughts and mind, you will be poor in your pockets. The alternative is also mostly true. If I can convince you that you are valuable, wealthy, important, and you have a place in this world, and then equip you with the tools to actually understand and succeed in a market economy, then you have a real shot at sustainable success in this world; be you black, white, red, brown or yellow. Without it, you're toast. Even more so if you are black in America, as black folks are born on probation in this country. That means we must be twice as smart, twice as aggressive, twice as assertive, twice as thoughtful and visionary, twice as hardworking, enterprising, and twice as well dressed; showing up early, and leaving late.

What we need now is a focus on injecting into our cultural veins a new and sustained mentality of a hand up, and not a hand out. And we can do it.

We have been doing so much, with so little, for so long, we can almost do anything with nothing.

Over the last 400 plus years since the days of slavery in America, we have actually won at surviving most everything this sometimes cruel world has thrown at us, and now we must also win at thriving, in and amidst this increasingly competitive world we now find ourselves living in.

What we need now is for our fathers to finally show up at home, so we can stop talking about "momma's baby, and daddy's maybe." What society survives long-term, when the formative family unit that builds and shapes the person, has fallen apart at the seams? None, is the answer.

Black women are saints for raising our children, representing somewhere around 70 percent of all black households in America today, but this reality is wrong. How do I know it is wrong, because 70 percent of black men in America are dropping out of high school today, and 70 percent of those in prison have no high school diploma, and some incredibly high number of kids born of parents in prison, also end up there. Success is a culture, and so is failure. Success breeds more success, and failure simply breeds more failure. Out of love we have been passing down bad habits from generation to generation. Out of love.

Increasingly, it's what we don't know that we don't know that is killing us. There's an old southern saying, "no matter how much I love you my son or my daughter, if I don't have wisdom, I can only give you my own ignorance. Out of love we pass down bad habits, from generation to generation. Out of love.

Increasingly, the issue impacting black America is not love versus hate, as was the case during the civil rights movement of the 1960's, but what I term radical indifference. Some people just don't care enough about us, to hate us. It really is up to us, to save us. Getting mad about it might be justified, but it is not going to change a thing. In fact, on a sustained basis, being emotional first, second and third in our response, simply makes the problem worse. We need to get on with it. Or quoting my friend and mentor, Quincy Jones, "we need a moratorium on childhood trauma." Let's find a way to move on, therapist included.

What we need now is a new solution, in a new age.

What we need now is to make financial literacy, or teaching each and every one of our children the "language of money," the new civil rights issue for the 21st century in America.

If 22 million not having the right to vote in 1962, an era marked by increasing democracy around the world, and the right to vote was the way we "codified democracy in the hands of the average person," sparking a civil rights movement here and around the globe, then 40 million people not having a bank account or under-banked here in America today, arguably the richest country in the world, in what is now clearly an economic era, should spark a silver rights movement for us all.

Quoting civil rights icon Ambassador Andrew Young, "Dr. King and I integrated the lunch counter, but we never integrated the dollar. And to live in a system of free enterprise, and yet not to understand the rules of free enterprise, is the definition of slavery." Building on this, I have said, " to not understand the language of money today, and to not have a bank account today, is to be an economic slave."

My late shero, Dr. Dorothy I. Height, chairwoman-emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women, which owned its own building on Pennsylvania Avenue across from the White House, and who counseled every President be they Republican or Democrat since President Franklin D. Roosevelt, once told me "John, I like you because you are a dreamer with a shovel in your hands."

Such sage counsel is not far off the mark from what black America needs to do for itself, now. We need to become dreamers, with shovels in our hands, and we need to appreciate what my spiritual mentor Reverend Dr. Cecil "Chip" Murray, former pastor of First A.M.E. Church once said, "the best way to start living your dream, is to start by waking up."

Well, like it or not, this global economic crisis is going to become one huge, possibly overwhelming wake up call for us all. And if history is any guide, "when mainstream folks have a headache, we have pneumonia," and a culture-wide case of pneumonia, right now, we cannot afford.

What black folks need now is action, and a plan based on a philosophy of "what we are for," rather than a doctrine of "what we are against." One model for such action is the organization I founded, Operation HOPE, but there are so many more (the National Urban League and 100 Black Men amongst them).

Let's go.

A Young Global Leader for the World Economic Forum, an Oprah's Angel Network award recipient, a TIME Magazine 50 (Leaders) for the Future (94'), John Hope Bryant is an entrepreneur, the founder, chairman and chief executive officer of Operation HOPE, the Inc. Magazine/CEO READ bestselling author of LOVE LEADERSHIP: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass), advisor to the last three sitting U.S. presidents, a thought leader, public speaker, and an innovator in the business of empowerment.

Mr. Bryant serves U.S. President Barack Obama on the President's Advisory Council on Financial Capability, and prior to that Mr. Bryant served U.S. President George W. Bush as vice chairman of the U.S. President's Advisory Council on Financial Council, and chairman of the council Committee on the Under-Served.

With the publishing of Love Leadership, Mr. Bryant became one of the few African-American business bestselling author published in mainstream business leadership in the country. Love Leadership: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass), has made the Inc. MagazIne-CEO Read Business Best Seller List a total of 11 months since being published.